The New Orleans Saints have hired former Saints tackle Zach Strief as their new Assistant Offensive Line Coach.
The 12-year veteran was drafted in the seventh round of the 2006 NFL draft, and was a cornerstone of the 2009 Super Bowl team that defeated the Indianapolis Colts 31-17 in Super Bowl XLIV. His first season as a starter in 2011 at right tackle saw the Saints allow the second-fewest sacks that season; named team captain the following season, Strief’s performance ascended the team to finish the season second in total offense. In addition, that 2012 season saw Drew Brees set the record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass.
Strief retired after injuries plagued him in the 2017 season, where he started in just two games. Since retiring in 2017, Strief became the successor to 30-year play-by-play announcer, Jim Henderson, as the voice of the New Orleans Saints with WWL Saints radio.
In his emotional retirement press conference, Strief directly referenced his desire to protect Drew Brees.
“Drew Brees has been the single greatest motivation for me as a player. Every day I would walk into the building and pass Drew watching film. Every Thursday I would send him pictures of the menu so we could order his dinner, because his work day finished four hours after ours. You’ve made countless sacrifices for your teammates. Spent countless hours with us instead of your family. My greatest drive as a player was not to let you down.”
Strief furthered to admit that the reason he pushed through his final years was the lack of a suitable replacement.
“One of the things that I kept thinking about last year was that there was no clear replacement on the roster. I knew if I was at home watching TV and Drew was getting hit and I felt like I could have helped, I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself. It’s much easier knowing that there’s someone there that’s going to play at a high level for him, so this is all Ryan Ramczyk’s fault.”
The Saints coaching staff has seen an unprecedented level of turnover this offseason. Former tight ends coach Dan Campbell is now the head coach of the Detroit Lions, taking secondary coach Aaron Glenn with him as their new defensive coordinator. Glenn has since been replaced with the hiring of former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator and Dallas Cowboys assistant coach Kris Richard. Assistant GM/VP of Pro Personnel Terry Fontenot is now the Atlanta Falcons General Manager, and quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi joined the Los Angeles Chargers as their new offensive coordinator.
Despite several staff vacancies yet to be filled, Strief’s role, curiously, was not vacant; at minimum, bolstering a coaching unit with no apparent need seems of decidedly lower priority. It’s certainly an interesting hire, with some intriguing implications.
The Saints offensive line graded 8th in PFF’s 2020 rankings; despite the best tackle duo with top-ranking pressure rates, the line fell in the rankings due to the less than stellar play at guard. Andrus Peat, Cesar Ruiz, and Nick Easton quite literally collapsed under pressure in the interior all season.
When Strief retired, he felt that he was leaving Drew Brees in good hands. All things considered, New Orleans has drafted a near stellar o-line the past few seasons. The Saints traded up in 2019 to select C Erik McCoy to replace Max Unger; their 2020 selection of Cesar Ruiz intended to fill the void of Larry Warford, a decision that will prove prudent to the team’s cap space in the coming seasons.
Unfortunately, the vision for Ruiz wasn’t able to come to fruition. New Orleans drafted Ruiz to move him into the center role, with the foreseen move of McCoy to guard. The shortened offseason and loss of preseason games prevented the switch; a rookie playing in an unintended position certainly accounts for the poor pass-blocking grade. It’s all but certain that the switch will take place this offseason. The hiring of Strief loudly speaks to that notion. An assistant dedicated to that interior switch allows for offensive line coach Dan Roushar to focus elsewhere.
Strief’s hire could also point to potential free agency signings to address the interior line. The Saints have allotted over $45 million towards offensive linemen, ranking 6th in positional spending for the 2021 cap. New Orleans recently released veteran guard Nick Easton to save $5.875 million in cap space. Easton was a reliable backup for Andrus Peat and Cesar Ruiz, playing in 12 games in the 2020 season, but his career has been plagued by concussions; his two concussions last season eventually landed him on IR.
An intriguing impending free agent for New Orleans to target is versatile Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Matt Feiler. The Steelers have signed Feiler to subsequent one-year contracts the last two seasons; his most recent contract was for $3.259 million. Though Feiler primarily played right tackle in his time with Pittsburgh, the team announced prior to the 2020 season that Feiler would be moving to left guard.
Feiler started his career in Pittsburgh primarily at right guard. Per PFF, in 2017, Feiler took 7 snaps at left guard, 59 snaps at right guard, and 9 snaps at right tackle. In 2018, Feiler took majority snaps at RT with 667, and 8 snaps at RG. In 2019, though he still mostly played RT with 922 snaps, he made the switch to LG with 73 snaps. By 2020, he started entirely at left guard; out of the 937 snaps he played last season, just one was at right tackle.
Feiler is not only a suitable replacement for Easton in terms of cap space, based on precedent of his low contracts the past two seasons, but he also fits the bill of an ideal New Orleans lineman. The drafting of McCoy and Ruiz speaks to value the Saints place on versatility in that role; both players have experience at center and guard.
The last implication of the Strief hire borders a bit on conspiracy. Recall Strief’s comments in his retirement press conference; he wasn’t willing to leave the team until he felt there was a suitable replacement to protect Drew Brees. One might remember the Week 10 hit on Brees last season where he incurred 11 rib fractures and a punctured lung. The sack was a result of an interior collapse; Ruiz let San Francisco 49ers DL Kentavius Street run through him like a train.
While it’s all but imminent, it is worth noting that Brees has yet to announce his retirement. One teammate in particular has voiced his dissent: Demario Davis. After his curious plea for Brees to return, fans may have noted that Davis and Brees recently visited Minneapolis to meet with an organization supported by a nonprofit Davis works with to combat racial disparities. Perhaps a little bit of friendly recruiting took place?
If Brees should return, it all but explains the Strief hiring. However, the chances are slim at best; the timing of the hire, however, remains peculiar. When one considers that New Orleans let quarterback coach Joe Lombardi walk, it’s interesting that the role remains vacant, while one of seemingly little to no priority was filled first. Either way, fans should be thrilled that Strief is joining the staff, no matter who ends up under center.
If Strief manages to corral the interior and fix the issue of Andrus Peat, the next quarterback for the New Orleans Saints will have a premium opportunity to succeed. The same can’t be said for several other potential destinations for quarterbacks on the carousel this season.
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